Christian Nowatzky was 11 years old when the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago, but the Berlin-based pastor says walls still exist. Some Germans still see themselves as East German or West German, others see themselves as liberal or conservative, but the church, he says, should be middle ground. "We can really be cultural leaders in a diversified world and in the city of Berlin, where people long for a message that unites, yet without superficially brushing over real differences," he says.
Nowatzky grew up in Erfurt (former East Germany), where his family faced communism in his early childhood. After attending seminary, he spent some time studying under Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. With Redeemer's help, he came back to Germany four years ago to plant an Evangelical Free Church called Berlinprojekt. What started with 11 people grew to about 400 people, making it in one of the largest churches in Berlin, where just 1.5 percent of people attend a Protestant church. Two weeks ago, the Christian magazine Idea Spektrum called Berlinprojekt one of the fastest growing churches in Berlin. Online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey spoke with Nowatzky, who is now 31, in a café in former East Berlin about the church in Berlin 20 years after the fall of the wall.
Were there any spiritual ramifications for Germany after the wall fell?
Under communism the church was decimated, and the majority of people were atheists, which is rare to find today. After the wall came down, the younger generation was influenced by the general postmodern theme and generally more pluralistic mindset from the West.
Is secularism the reason why church attendance in Germany is so low, even with its history of the Reformation?
Germans are very skeptical towards a conclusive ideology, because they fell prey more than once, in succession: imperialism, National Socialism, communism in the 20th century. So if someone says, well, Christ is the answer for everything, it immediately creates big problems. Then you also have a very strong current extreme of liberal theology.
Higher critical theology also originated in Germany and spread to other countries. So you go to mostly state-run seminaries, and then you hear that Christ never did any miracles, and it's really not believable. The Protestant church is far more affected than the Catholic Church. The Protestant church has lost half of their members since WWII. The Catholic Church is conservative, sometimes in the wrong areas, but they have a different voice than what the surrounding culture has to offer. The challenge for the Protestant church is to be relevant and, at the same time, stick to old convictions.
How does the current Christian culture in the United States differ from the Christian culture in Berlin?
You have a huge Christian scene in the U.S. where everybody's screaming about how we're losing ground. Here, the church has been losing ground for decades and really lost the ground. So it's very important for the Christian scene here to recapture the cities, because if you ever look on the map where Christianity is strong it's not strong in the cities. And you have to be in the cities in order to have any influence on culture. We have to be more holistic in our faith and recapture the idea that Christ did not only come to save souls but came to renew this planet. You have to show that you are here not for yourself but for the renewal of the world. Asking, "So what does that mean for the environment, social justice, and education?" you have to bring the gospel and Christian worldview to bear on all these issues.
A mistake evangelicals have made here is that they have focused on businesspeople and on politics. But politics is mostly downstream and can only regulate things that the general public pushes for. Artists initiate things. A businessman may not have thought about his identity. But an artist deals with such existential questions that there is a hunger for spiritual questions again.
Will your church celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall?
We'll do something for when the wall came down. Germans are not so big on celebration because it seems cheesy. So we won't do a big celebration, but we'll talk about it.
How did your life change after the wall came down?
My family was discriminated against under communism because of our faith, as were many other Christian families. My parents did not send me to the communist youth mass organizations. But if you did not go there you could not finish high school (only 10 years instead of 12 years), and thus weren't able to enter any college or academic education. I remember the pressure that weighed on my parents from many dinner conversations about this when I was a kid, as they did not let us go to those organizations. Luckily, the wall came down when I was in 6th grade, and later I was able to get a Master's degree.
What can Christians take away from the fall of the Berlin Wall?
It's a shame that we still have an invisible wall. People who are extremely left wing or extremely conservative in their political stance never meet at the same table or shake hands.
What did really unite the first churches? It was not a shared cultural background, as some were Jews and others Gentiles of many different kinds. It was not a fully shared set of rules and regulations, as Jewish believers followed some very different rules than Gentile believers, and as Paul rules out the law as a foundation in Ephesians 2:15. But it is also not the "multicultural" approach that is popular today in the political and public arena where everything is being held together by an unquestionable respect for the differences of the other. In the early church there was much questioning, admonishing, and discussing, theologically as well as ethically, about the right and just way.
The church creates this amazing opportunity; in the church people can come together that would otherwise never sit together: people from the political right and left, people having very different attitudes about sex, power, and money, people who suffered from communists and people who were communists, the "environmentalist" and liberal "capitalist," people with Jewish backgrounds and others with German, Arab, or other backgrounds. Not by simply tolerating each other and leaving each other untouched, but by welcoming each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and then the joined struggle begins. What truly unites us is the shared confession of Christ and a life-long struggle with each other and with God to find a biblical way for life and work.
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Previous articles on Germany include:
Germany's Christian Democrats | An administration official discusses evangelicals' political involvement—or lack thereof. (October 5, 2009)
A Lost Generation | Mainline churches in East Germany rediscover a sense of mission. | (October 1, 2009)
Church in State | In post-Communist Germany, Christian political involvement is surging. By Philip Yancey (March 10, 2008)
Other Christianity Today articles on Eastern Europe include:
Theology in the News: Europe's Past Is Today's Hope | Rome won't cede the continent to secularists without a fight. (October 5, 2009)
A Lost Generation | Mainline churches in East Germany rediscover a sense of mission. (October 1, 2009)
Eastern Europe's Evangelical Hub | A scholar discusses the development of evangelicalism in Ukraine. (January 29, 2008)
Under Reconstruction | How Eastern Europe's evangelicals are restoring the church's vitality. (October 13, 2005)
East German Church Lost 'Distinctive Voice' After Reunification | Forty years after the building of the Berlin Wall, cleric claims some churches are worse off (August 1, 2001)